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Maneki Neko, the “Lucky Cat” of Japan

By Julia Williams

As good luck charms go, the Maneki Neko is perhaps the cutest one of all. Of course, as a cat lover I am probably biased, but still – the friendly feline known around the globe as Maneki Neko is pretty darn adorable, don’t you think? Chances are, you’ve seen one of these little cat statues sitting at the entrance of your favorite Japanese or Chinese restaurant, or some other place of business. You might even have one displayed in your home. But while that sweet, smiling cat beckoning you with an upright paw might look modern, the Maneki Neko is actually an age-old custom that dates back several centuries, to Japan's Edo Period (1603 to 1868).

What is the Maneki Neko?

The Maneki Neko is a popular Japanese sculpture that’s believed to bring good luck. Maneki Neko means “Beckoning Cat,” and it’s often called that and other names including Welcoming Cat, Lucky Cat of Japan, Money Cat, Fortune Cat and Prosperity Cat. The cat figurine, typically made of ceramic, is often placed by the front door of businesses and homes to welcome guests and attract wealth. Though the Maneki Neko originated in Japan, it's now found worldwide and is a popular collector's item.

Although I’ve seen many different interpretations of the Maneki Neko – including one that bears a striking resemblance to another Japanese icon, Hello Kitty! – they usually always have a red collar and red ears. Some have a bell on their collar, while others have a koban (a gold coin from the Edo Period.) Many also carry a scroll bearing the message “Please come in. You are welcome!”

Maneki Neko Symbolism

There are two versions of Maneki Neko, each with a different meaning. With its left paw raised, Maneki Neko welcomes customers and guests; with its right paw raised, Maneki Neko invites good luck and money. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with displaying both versions to cover all the bases!

Opinions differ on whether the Maneki Neko is a male or female, but most agree that the cat is a Japanese Bobtail. This ancient breed comes in many different colors, but the original Maneki Neko statues were calico, or mi-ke which means “three fur.”

Maneki Neko Legends

The thing about most urban legends is that no one alive today knows for certain what, if anything, happened all those years ago. The origin of the Maneki Neko is no different. There are many fascinating Maneki Neko legends, and though each tale is different, they all center around a heroic cat who brings good luck or saves a stranger from peril.

One legend tells of a feudal lord who was riding through the countryside. He stopped for lunch near a temple and sat beneath a tree. He noticed that one of the temple cats had its paw raised and seemed to be beckoning him to come inside. Curious, the lord went inside the temple. Not long after, the tree he’d been sitting underneath was struck by lightning. The Maneki Neko figure was created as a way for the feudal lord to pay tribute to the cat for saving his life.

A similar legend involves the Gotokuji temple in Tokyo. It was 1615 and the dilapidated temple was suffering badly due to a lack of funds. A group of samurai passed by the temple, led by Naotaka Li, heir to the Hikone Castle in Shiga. Naotaka sought shelter from a storm under a tree but was beckoned into the temple by the monk's cat, Tama. When Naotaka got inside, the ground where he'd stood was struck by lightning. Grateful to the cat for saving his life, Naotaka vowed to help the poor temple regain prosperity. Upon Tama's death some years later, the cat was buried at Gotokuji's cat cemetery with due respect, and the Maneki Neko tradition was born.

A third Maneki Neko legend tells of a nobleman passing by a cat which seemed to wave to him. Taking the cat’s beckoning motion as a sign, the nobleman went to it. Diverted from his journey, the nobleman soon realized he had luckily avoided a trap that had been laid for him just ahead.

Maneki Neko Trivia

The Pokémon Meowth is designed to look like a Maneki Neko.

In the Animal Crossing video game series, figures based on the Maneki Neko are placed in a player's house to increase their overall “luck” in the game.

The Maneki Neko is sometimes thought to be of Chinese origin rather than Japanese, and is mistakenly referred to as a Chinese Lucky Cat. This is due to its popularity and presence within Chinese communities.

It’s commonly believed the higher the raised paw of the Maneki Neko, the greater the luck. Consequently, over the years the cat’s paw has tended to appear ever higher.

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